'George and Lizzie' proves Nancy Pearl can also be a storyteller

Celebrity librarian Pearl - best known for her book recommendations – comes out with her first novel.

George & Lizzie By Nancy Pearl Touchstone 288 pp.

The inevitable question about George & Lizzie, Nancy Pearl’s first novel, is how it stacks up to its author’s own tough but loving standards.

Pearl, as close to a celebrity as a professional librarian can be, is renowned for her ability to connect readers with great reads. She’s written a handful of “Book Lust” recommendation guides, among other accomplishments, and holds to a “Rule of 50” that says it’s OK to abandon a book if the reader isn’t engaged after the first 50 pages. (You can subtract one page for each year the reader is over 50.)

In the case of "George & Lizzie," I’d bet librarians and booksellers will match it to readers who love clearly-imagined characters (as Pearl herself does). They’ll suggest it to bibliophiles who have a weakness for smart dialogue and mordant humor, and a sympathy for the painful mistakes people inflict on themselves and others. It may appeal to fans of Anne Tyler, who has a similar talent for plots that seem unlikely at first and then intensely human.

While the title gives equal weight to both George and Lizzie, it’s chiefly the story of Lizzie Bultmann, who we meet as an aspiring college English major who reads Dodie Smith’s “I Capture the Castle” and loves “an eclectic group of poets” including Edna St. Vincent Millay. The child of two behavioral psychologists who are – at least through Lizzie’s eyes – almost caricatures of coldness, the defining moment of Lizzie’s life has been a high school goal she set herself; The Great Game, a self-destructive lark that Lizzie thought might awaken her aloof parents “enough to finally see her.”

The eyebrow-raising game and its harm are complete by the time we meet Lizzie and kind, upstanding (but don’t get complacent, Pearl slips in some surprises) George Goldrosen.

“The Goldrosens never tell what our gifts are in advance of giving them,” as one character says, and George’s contributions are vast.

At heart, the book is the story of the couple’s marriage and the question of whether Lizzie can transcend her emotional walls, but we learn the details through storytelling vignettes that smoothly spool back and forth through time. That style and the 1990s setting lend the story a slightly formal, old-fashioned quality, allowing plot twists that 21st-century advancements might have eliminated. In today’s world, for instance, Pearl’s college students might have been on Instagram rather than consulting Ouija boards, and electronic traces would make it much harder for a major character to plausibly disappear.

The pace is abrupt at the very beginning, then settles down to a relaxed back-and-forth survey that skims through the character’s lives, inching the story forward here and pausing to develop a detail there. It’s a surprisingly delicious read considering how many of the main plot points are revealed in the first few pages. And by this reader’s count it’s still pretty early in the rule of 50 – on page 23, when Lizzie meets her college roommate, Marla – that we fall a little in love with the not-always-likable title character, and know the book will keep us emotionally attached to the end.

It’s at the end, if anything, where the pace feels off, wrapping up the story and its conflicts with jarring speed. One story thread that seemed bound for importance simply drops off instead, others are compressed too fast. But it’s to Pearl’s credit that we want more time with Lizzie and George (and Marla and George’s mother Elaine and Sheila and others), and this whole improbable community that she’s brought to life.


You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
Real news can be honest, hopeful, credible, constructive.
What is the Monitor difference? Tackling the tough headlines – with humanity. Listening to sources – with respect. Seeing the story that others are missing by reporting what so often gets overlooked: the values that connect us. That’s Monitor reporting – news that changes how you see the world.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.

QR Code to 'George and Lizzie' proves Nancy Pearl can also be a storyteller
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today